They called him “labor boy.”
Marc J. Siegel’s labor and employment career began as a mediator at Duke University’s Durham Dispute Settlement Center, and it continued at the University of Illinois College of Law, where he took every labor and employment class available.
It was at U. of I. that he received the nickname that would chart his career.
“I enjoyed fighting for the underdog,” said Siegel, 43. “Maybe it was being a second child. I always wanted what I thought was fair and wanted other people to be treated fairly too. I thought the law was a good vehicle for that purpose.”
After earning his J.D. in 1996, Siegel began his career at Laner, Muchin Ltd., representing employers.
His heart, though, remained with employees.
“When I represented employers, I felt like I was making a difference — but not as much as on the individual side,” Siegel said.
He made the switch in 2002, co-founding Caffarelli & Siegel Ltd. with Alejandro Caffarelli.
“It was an opportunity to have my own firm, to set my own path,” Siegel said. “I speak Spanish, and it was an opportunity to … use my Spanish skills toward advocating for Hispanic workers.”
Siegel’s Hispanic clients have become among his favorite. They are, he said, “hard-working (and) dedicated to their jobs.”
They are also “sometimes susceptible to being taken advantage of,” he said.
Seeing their struggles is one of Siegel’s strengths, said fellow labor and employment plaintiff attorney Lynne Bernabei of Bernabei & Wachtel PLLC in Washington, D.C.
“I think he has a sort of innate sense of empathy about what others go through and how hard it is for them,” Bernabei said.
Siegel’s empathy has benefited nurses, farm workers, cooks, busboys and waiters in a variety of disputes over unpaid wages, unethical treatment and sexual harassment.
And because so many of his clients don’t know how to even begin taking action against their employers, the law has become something more than a body of rules to be studied.
It is something to be taught.
“Everyone will go through an employment issue,” said Siegel, who instructs clients of their rights and employers on how to comply with employment laws.
“People have such an incredible misperception about the rights that they have in the workplace. Most people tend to think they have a lot more rights than they actually do, so when the day of reckoning comes, they haven’t adequately prepared themselves for it.”
His empathy rubs off on opponents, too.
“He’s polite and intelligent and capable and civil,” said Jeralyn H. Baran of Chuhak & Tecson P.C.
“All of those things may seem to be, ‘Shouldn’t everyone be this way?’ Everyone isn’t that way. He embodied basically what you’d hope for in a good opponent.”
Baran met Siegel in 2011 when the two squared off in federal court on a Fair Labor Standards Act case. The dispute, Cuevas Valentine v. Facilitec Central Inc., centered on a question of overtime pay. The matter settled out of court.
“We definitely disagreed about whether overtime pay needed to be paid,” Baran said. “But because of his intellectual curiosity and tenacity and advocacy for his client, we were able to engage in what was a respectful and good debate. It was a good fight.”
Baran also appreciated that Siegel worked to quickly end the litigation.
“Getting a matter resolved quickly is helpful to the employer if there is exposure,” Baran said. “Marc understood that and didn’t churn the file — he didn’t unnecessarily extend the time for the litigation. And I think that’s responsible.”
Along with his practice, Siegel works as an arbitrator and mediator, a return to his Duke University roots.
Last year, the Highland Park native opened Siegel & Dolan, Ltd., where he continues to enjoy the challenges of the practice area.
“It’s easier to determine liability” in other areas of plaintiff practice, Siegel said.
“You know if somebody broke their arm. You know if somebody got hit by a bus.
“But putting intent into why somebody let somebody go, what’s going on in a decision-maker’s head — it’s a very difficult thing to do.”
Those challenges include employees fighting for job security in a market with many more applicants than positions and employees being called “independent contractors” so employers can save on salary and benefits.
That environment means that it’s not just immigrants and the poor who need employment litigation help.
“An average millennial will have 10 to 15 jobs in his or her life,” Siegel said. “That’s very different than the way it was in our parents’ generation. I think people need a realistic perspective on what’s going on.”